Dusting Off the Old Ones was published in 1961 by W. B. Clarke, Miles City, Montana.
The Wool House Fire
Shade Tree Bill tells us that the conflagration which probably caused more litigation in Miles City than any other fire here was the burning of the Custer County Wool Warehouse Company's wool house on June 30, 1900. One of the contributing factors to Shade Tree's recollection of the fire was the fact that he and a neighbor boy had been working on their mothers for several weeks to get permission to spend the night in the loft of the neighbor's barn, and it was with reluctance that this permission was given. Nevertheless Shade Tree and his pal were "bedded down" in the loft when the fire whistle blew for the woolhouse fire about nine o'clock on the evening of June 30. (Just imagine a couple of fifteen year old youngsters being in bed by nine o'clock these days). Needless to say these boys lost no time in getting to the scene of the fire. As he tells the story, there was a freight train, traveling west on the Northern Pacific tracks about eight P. M. This train was evidently overloaded and was throwing sparks from the smokestack. These sparks were whipped by a wind, having a velocity of at least 40 miles per hour, onto the roof of the woolhouse, which had been built during the spring of 1900 by the Custer County Wool Warehouse Company. It was a frame structure and had a cupola extending the whole length of it.

The Custer County Wool Warehouse Company was incorporated In February, 1900, and the subscribers to the stock comprised such local business-men as H. W. Mcintyre, C. T. Lakin, W. E. Savage, Miles City Lumber Company, Bement & McDonald, and C. B. Towers, and such sheepmen as Kenneth McLean, Prank O'Neill, George Horkan, R. R. Selway and George Donaldson. Of course, there were others but these are the ones that are probably easiest remembered. There wore 807,500 pounds of wool, either stored in the woolhouse or on the platform along side of it. W. E. (or Charlie) Harris had the largest consignment of wool in the warehouse -- 106,000 pounds. All the wool was insured with exception of 10 sacks which had been brought in the previous afternoon. Wool in those days was valued at between fifteen and twenty cents a pound. Some of the wool was insured as late as seven o'clock on the evening of the fire.

The insurance companies paid the sheepmen for the wool, and, in turn, brought suit against the Northern Pacific Railway Company to recover the amounts paid by them to the woolgrowers. There were 38 different civil actions filed between July 10, 1900 and June 28, 1902--each the outgrowth of this fire. On account of the great number of cases filed it was stipulated between the attorneys for the respective parties that they would try two of the cases as test cases, and settlement of the remaining litigation would be based upon the results of these test cases. The trial of these two cases lasted seven days. The insurance companies were represented by a local attorney and a prominent attorney from San Francisco, while the Northern Pacific was represented by its local legal talent and attorneys from Helena and from St. Paul. The trial of both cases resulted in verdicts in favor of the insurance companies for the amounts which they had paid under their policies. Each of these cases was appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Montana, and the Supreme Court sent its decision, upholding the findings of the district court, to the Clerk of Court here on January 30, 1905, after which all the cases were settled. The total amount of insurance carried was $106,307--quite a sizable amount for these days. Shade Tree Bill, who told us the story, stated that the location of the wool warehouse was on the south side of the Northern Pacific tracks, on the right of way between South Montana and South Prairie Avenues. Pacing Fort Street, immediately south of the warehouse, were two residences which burned from the same cause. One belonged to Sarah J. Harn, and the other to Mrs. Katherine Burgel. The Burgel residence was at 1415 Fort and has been rebuilt and is now occupied by Clark Cummings. The other residence was never rebuilt and the remains of the fire can be seen to this day. Among the witnesses called to testify at these trials were Matt Ilgen, who was in charge of the woolhouse, and who was the father of Mrs. Jim Nugent; A. W. Kennie, the father of Mrs. Cora Keye, who was the United States Weather Observer at the time; Jim Buckner who was in charge of the electric light plant, about two blocks west, and who testified as to the sparks emanating from the smoke stack on the train engine, as did L. A. Huffman, who saw the fire from a distance of more than a mile to the northeast; Tom Browning, who saw the fire from his residence on Stacy Avenue; Arch Gibb, who saw the fire from his father's residence on South Custer Avenue; and quite a few others. One of the contributing factors to the extensiveness of the fire was that the train was blocking the railroad crossing, and the Fire Department was delayed in reaching it.

One incident recalled by Shade Tree is that he was wearing a new straw hat when he left the barn and headed for the fire. When they got out into the street, the wind blew hit hat off, and he was certain that that was the last of the new hat, but when he and his pal were opposite the court house, Shade Tree stumbled over something, and, lo and behold there was the hat--it had raced on ahead of him. All in all in was quite an evening in Miles City.